Throughout my life, I have grappled with the concept of romantic love. Growing up with a strong single mother and a combination of anxiety and low self-confidence, I didn’t have any model to base my definition on. Having few experiences seeing people in conventional romantic relationships outside of television, I saw romance as both unrealistic and confusing. Wikipedia’s definition states that romantic love “distinguishes moments and situations within intimate relationships to an individual as contributing to a significant relationship connection.” Any definition of romantic love, and most displays of it that I have come across, leave much to be desired. Adding in the fact that I have gone through most of my life without feeling physical attraction toward people based on the way they look, I have felt a bit like an outsider in a world obsessed with one particular kind of ‘love.’
In picking apart love, I’d like to start with the two categories of platonic and romantic. Our society makes a point of separating the two into distinctly different territories, with platonic being seen as inferior by most of popular culture (as illustrated by both Biz Markie’s “Just A Friend” and every femme’s favorite, the infamous “friend zone”). I’ve always been a person who wants to develop a friendship before displaying any obvious desire for someone. Our generation, deemed “the hookup generation” even though we as a group are having sex less often, still looks to media that keeps a strict line between friendship and romance (in straight couples) from the get-go. Tropes and recycled plots lead us to know from two people’s first encounter whether they will be friends or romantic opposites. We are then indoctrinated with this sense of exclusivity between the two, and other tropes like intense jealousy or poor communication only solidify the fact that we are told that dating someone isn’t about being friends.
Seeing the same confessions of love on television and then the ensuing stress and drama honestly confused my ideas of the concept even more. Love is treated as possession, and interest in other people — platonically or romantically, even without acting upon it — is demonized instantly (Google “microcheating” if you dare to discover all the ways in which wearing a nice outfit can be imagined into infidelity).
So what can we do to be both less jealous and less stressed in our own romantic relationships and to value our platonic relationships more? A solution comes in blurring the lines between the two. Societally, we treat romantic relationships as very rigid, even though hookup culture has done a lot to break down the social scripts that we think are ‘required’ to be intimate with someone or to be in a romantic relationship. The most important step in my efforts to understand romance has been to value friendship more: both the friendship of partners and of all the other people who support me in my life. The second has been to get away from seeing affection as a zero-sum game: Different people have different thresholds for love, and putting time into another relationship doesn’t necessarily take away from your own. Unlearning toxic societal relationship standards can be key to not seeing people as possessions and seeing all your relationships as valuable.